When it comes to superheroes, most people wouldn’t think of them as being mentally ill. For decades, Marvel comics have explored mental health issues but it is only recently that the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) has followed suit.
Discussing mental illness in relation to The Avengers is important for a multitude of reasons; but most of these reasons spring from viewers being able to relate to a character and their struggles, recognising that they are not alone. Seeing ourselves reflected in our favourite movies not only helps us to feel validated, it offers us a way to feel less alienated or wrong and also gives us hope because our heroes are able to continue living their lives whilst dealing with their problems.
What makes the MCU’s representation of those with mental illness so brilliant is that the franchise’s depictions of mental health issues is just as dimensional and complex as the real world.
Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) is vitally important, because he gives us an insight into the irrationality of mental illness by showing a seemingly indestructible man in a progressively more vulnerable state through the course of the franchise.
Following his abduction in Afghanistan, Tony undergoes a dramatic change of character as a result of his trauma and witnessing the atrocities committed by his company illegally supplying weapons for guerrilla warfare. Beginning as a flamboyant party-boy, Tony transforms into a guilt-ridden man intent on fixing everything by becoming Iron Man. Although he is successful, his guilt for his company’s actions remains and compels him to join The Avengers.
In Avengers Assemble, Tony relentlessly works to protect New York but a brush with death during the alien invasion has profound consequences on his mental health and impacts on his relationship with Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow). Throughout Iron Man 3, Tony suffers from insomnia and panic attacks. To solve the issue he begins to build an army of suits in preparation for potential battles in the future but his obsession with protecting the world has a detrimental effect on his relationship with Pepper leading them to separate following his creation of Ultron in Avengers: Age of Ultron. In Captain America: Civil War Tony and Pepper remain separated which Tony explains is a result of his inability to quash his obsession with protecting the world through his inventions. This highlights Tony’s patterned response to trauma and emphasises his compromised mental health as this, coupled with his insomnia and inability to maintain a healthy relationship, is indicative of PTSD.
Through Tony’s evolution we are taught that no matter how much resilience you have demonstrated in the past, your achievements, strength of character, or the expectations placed upon you by others, you can still have moments of weakness. As a result Tony presents a very real depiction of a man struggling with mental illness. Conventionally, in our hyper-masculine society, men are discouraged from discussing mental illness and Tony exhibits this unwillingness to accept that something is wrong. Instead he lives in denial, waiting for it to pass without really acknowledging is existence.
Similarly, Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans) exhibits multiple symptoms that the NHS defines as being indicative of depression over a prolonged period throughout the series and refuses to seek help choosing instead to focus on his work and physical activity.
In a deleted scene from Avengers Assemble Steve leafs through a dossier detailing the fates of his friends from Captain America: The First Avenger and all but Peggy Carter are shown to be dead. Steve experiences immense grief which leads to his depression. Immediately, Steve suffers from insomnia as highlighted by his eagerness to engage in physical activity through the night. As a result, Steve demonstrates disinterest in activities outside of his work that he had previously found pleasurable throughout Captain America: Winter Soldier as he continually rejects Natasha Romanoff’s attempts to set him up on a date. Steve also confesses to fellow veteran Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie) that he doesn’t know what to do with himself out of uniform.
A huge part of Steve’s arc is the misplaced guilt he feels for Bucky Barnes’ (Sebastian Stan) death and eventual resurrection and recruitment by Hydra as The Winter Soldier. Steve feels utterly responsible and becomes relentless in his pursuit of Bucky in an attempt to save him. In the climax Steve even goes so far as to willingly allow Bucky to try and kill him, highlighting his recurrent thoughts of death, in order to even the score.
Steve is a significant example of depression, its symptoms, and how it can affect the hyper-masculine architype (particularly veterans) because it demonstrates a level of ambiguity and complexity that is recognisable whilst also not yet resolved. Like Tony, Steve still finds ways to cope but it is unfortunate that not a single male character to have mental illness seeks help for their conditions considering how influential these characters are.
The Avengers’ newest member, Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen), is one of only three women to struggle with mental health issues within the MCU and its expanded television universe – the others being Natasha Romanoff and Jessica Jones. Throughout her history in the comic books, Wanda struggles with mental illness as a result of a traumatic childhood and the loss of her husband and sons. In Age of Ultron, Joss Whedon explores her mental illness by focusing on the trauma she sustained as a child losing her parents to a Stark Industries bomb. However, this depiction is not without its problems.
Wanda possesses mental manipulation abilities, highlighting that her power is of the mind, thereby causing her representation of mental illness to become problematic when she lashes out at The Avengers, using her mind manipulation to force them to confront their greatest fears.
In effect, she damages them. This particular depiction thus paints a very negative picture as it demonises those who suffer from mental illness. However, Whedon redeems himself when Wanda joins The Avengers towards the film’s climax as she overcomes her trauma to fight alongside them.
Wanda’s mental illness is complex as she also suffers from anxiety, forcing her to retreat at one point into a house during the battle where Hawkeye finds her. This is an important depiction of mental illness because not only is Wanda shown to be vulnerable she accepts the support she’s offered by Hawkeye and re-joins the battle, pushing aside her own fears to help those in need.
When she returns in Captain America: Civil War, her powers are the catalyst for The Avengers division as she inadvertently causes the death of ten civilians whilst trying to stop a suicide bomber. This is a disappointing regression, however, she is saved by the fact that she has clearly grown and continues to overcome her mental illness as she still fights to protect people and accepts herself for who she is. She confides in Vision (Paul Bettany) telling him that she cannot control others’ fears about her, only her own.
Wanda is a very powerful Avenger but someone whom the world is unsure of how to handle, reflecting the way in which society still regards those with mental illness. As a character, Wanda embodies the feeling of being an outcast – an outsider in her own world – but demonstrates that it is possible to be accepted if only she accepts herself first.
Despite her problematic depiction Wanda is one of the few characters to also give a positive representation of mental illness as not only does she survive, she thrives by accepting herself and accepting the love and support of her teammates.
Throughout the MCU mental illness exists and it is important that it does because its inclusion enhances the conversation on mental illness and encourages us as the audience to relate, respond, and react to the ways in which the protagonists deal with their trauma.